Saturday, March 04, 2006

SAO Spring Conference 2006

I spent much of the day in Salem, at Willamette University, stopping at Starchie Archie's (aka Mickey D's) in Woodburn for breakfast and fuel. The ConocoPhillips station had Exxon decals on the pumps. This seemed quite the oil giant, so I snapped a picture for my blog.

I was attending the SAO Foundation's annual spring conference, held in conjunction with the Oregon CSTA. Congratulations to Sara Zuckerman on becoming the president elect this year.

As I was thanking WU's Fritz Ruehr for sharing his excellent computer contest challenges with me awhile back (the conference is held in conjunction with a high school programming contest), my shoulder-slung Toshiba swung into a clock made from an old disk drive, knocking out its AA battery, which was hard to put back in. This clock was for timing the contest. Fortunately, Fritz had a backup clock.

Aside from this faux pas, which people were friendly about, I think I did an effective job as a diplomat, both for Python and for the Open Source Community more generally. This year I had the added credential of being a Python teacher in a Portland public school -- plus I use Moodle, which turned out to be another big topic.

Several teachers, without prompting from me, expressed the view that math students are under-served when it comes to technology. Why not mix math with programming? Kids often thrive when this gets tried. Yet the two subjects are strictly segregated, with math made a requirement and computer science an elective.

When the civilian education budget tightens, the technology teachers are among the first to be axed, or switched into math teaching. In the meantime, demand for students well-versed in technology is on the rise, with business and industry begging the schools to be more responsive to their needs.

Universities find incoming freshmen already turned off to technical careers (especially women). Enrollment in CS departments is way down. We learned more about these frustrations during the panel discussion, with representatives from OIT, WOU, PSU, and WU.

The answer seems obvious: require computer use when learning mathematics. And yet when the NCTM talks about "technology in the classroom" it usually means calculators, with a mere nod to a few popular computer applications such as Geometers Sketchpad. Computer programming is rarely if ever mentioned in the NCTM literature. Go to my Oregon Curriculum Network website if you want the real deal.

I made a lot of good contacts. SAO meetings are a valuable networking opportunity.


A conference highlight for me was watching student presenter Steven Bocci (9th grade) whip through GameMaker, building a playable version of Breakout in just five minutes. I now have a better appreciation of why kids flock to Edwin Pillobello's classes at Saturday Academy. GameMaker is cleverly designed and probably does teach some transferrable programming skills, usable in other World Game contexts.

Also, around this same time, Brad Miller was at SIGCSE 2006 in Houston, Texas, giving a formal presentation on the advantages of Python at the college level, which he says was well received.